Christmas Wreaths

Roundy green thing

On my door,

Decked with ribbons,

Bows and more.

The scent of pine

From woven leaf,

My lovely, festive,

Christmas wreath.

Wreaths are decorative displays that can be found in homes and businesses throughout the year; however, for many, wreaths are a seasonal decoration, and the holiday most often connected with wreaths is Christmas. Although they have become a holiday tradition, many do not know the long history and assorted meanings associated with wreaths.

The word wreath comes from the word writhen that was an old English word meaning “to writhe” or “to twist”. It is believed that wreaths date back to the Persian Empire, ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire. The idea of hanging wreaths was not necessarily done as a home décor idea. Wreaths were often hung on doors as a sign of victory and/ or to signify status in society. Julius Caesar often wore a twisted laurel wreath as a symbol of his importance; but, many believe he was also a little vain and wore them because he was going bald!

Christmas wreaths are also connected with the pagan holiday of Yule which was celebrated by ancient Germanic and Scandinavian peoples. Yule marked the onset of the winter solstice and was a 12-day festival held in honor of the returning sun and the seasonal cycle. Wreaths of greens or straw often contained a five pointed star in the center and were prominent decorations during the celebration.

Perhaps the most well-known use of wreaths comes in connection with Christmas and with Christianity. The circular shape of the wreath is said to symbolize eternity and the unending love of God. In the late 16th century, the use of wreaths during Yule was adopted by Christians and became a custom in the form of an Advent wreath. An Advent wreath was traditionally made of evergreen branches, holly, and red berries. Each of those parts had a significant meaning of its own. The evergreen branches stood for eternal life…ever green. The red berries and the thorny leaves of the holly represented the crown of thorns worn by Christ and His blood shed while wearing it. An Advent wreath was meant to hold 4 candles: 3 purple and one rose. The candles stand for hope, peace, joy (rose), and love, and are placed in the wreath one at a time, one each of the four Sundays that run up to Christmas. Sometimes a fifth candle, which is white, is added to the center. It represents Christ and is lit on Christmas Eve.

For many people, Christmas wreaths are not meant to be religious symbols. Today a wreath hanging on a door, a municipal light pole, or on your Christmas tree may be inviting the spirit of Christmas into your community or home along with good luck.

For those of us who collect antique and vintage Christmas, wreaths come in many sizes and are made of many different materials. Communities often hung very large wreaths on downtown light poles or on buildings. Some communities still do that today, although, because of cost, we are seeing less and less of these municipal decorations in the center of towns.

You might find wreaths on vintage cards and wrapping paper.

Some ladies might wear a wreath brooch.

There are also lighted wreaths for use in the window, on the wall, or at the top of your tree.

Wreaths come in all sizes, from the very large for hanging over the mantle to very small for hanging on your Christmas tree.

The variety is almost endless and each wreath is a reminder of traditions, colors, lights, and the joy of the Christmas holiday.

Tinsel

1957 Too much tinsel? Never! We like this tree's over the top decorations. You'll see lots of fabulous--and sometimes over the top --decorations.
1957 Too much tinsel? Never! We like this tree’s over the top decorations. You’ll see lots of fabulous–and sometimes over the top –decorations.
  • Should we use old tinsel or new tinsel?
  • Shall we call it tinsel, lametta, rain, or icicles?
  • Should we use just a little or lots and lots of it?
  • Shall I place it on the tree one strand at a time or throw it on in clumps?
  • Save it for next year? Toss it out with the tree?
  • So many dilemmas surround tinsel!

Many of us decorate our Christmas trees every year with tinsel, but why? Who thought tinsel up in the first place? And, why, for heaven’s sake, hang it on an evergreen tree at Christmas? Let’s check out some facts about tinsel!

The word “tinsel” comes from the French word, estincelle, meaning “spark.” As to who invented tinsel, no one really knows, or at least remembers. We do know, however, that it was first used in Germany in the 1600s. It wasn’t that shiny plastic stuff we can buy these days; it was actually made from shredded silver. At first, the silver was hammered so that it was very thin and then cut into long thin strips. Before the 19th century, tinsel was actually used for adorning sculptures rather than Christmas trees. It was also often used in churches to simulate the starry sky above statues of the Holy family and the Christ child.

It is also unknown which genius thought to drape some over the branches of an evergreen. Tinsel is thought to have made its first public appearance in England in 1846. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were pictured in the Illustrated London News, standing with their children around a Christmas tree decorated with tinsel, candles, and small ornaments. Because of Queen Victoria’s popularity, decorated trees became the height of fashion in Europe, Britain, and in the East Coast American societies.

These early Christmas trees were also decorated with real, lighted candles, and the silver, combined with the flickering flames and light from the hearth, created a twinkly effect that gave a similar effect as the modern day string of lights. Sparkle, sparkle! Silver tinsel did have its drawbacks. Because it was made of silver, it tarnished, often before Christmas had even arrived. The smoke from the lighted candles did not help, either. They caused the tinsel to turn a black color on one side, which didn’t look very attractive. Besides, tinsel made from all silver was expensive and usually only the more wealthy families could afford it.

By the early 1900s, mainstream Americans were looking for less costly ways to decorate the Christmas trees in their homes. Manufacturers started producing tinsel made of aluminum and copper. This tinsel gave the same festive sparkle as the silver tinsel, but for a fraction of the price. Plus, this tinsel could be used year after year. But, even this tinsel wasn’t perfect. The aluminum paper in the tinsel was extremely flammable, which was a terrible choice for Christmas trees that were still decked out in candles. That problem was solved, however, when World War I began and all of the copper production went towards the war effort. Tinsel disappeared from the Christmas trees in most households.

It wasn’t gone for long. Tinsel manufacturers believed that tinsel deserved a place on Christmas trees. After all, it really did make those evergreens sparkle and shine! Makers worked hard to come up with something that could be hung in every home. It needed to look just right and be inexpensive enough for everyone to purchase it. The manufacturing choice was lead.

Lead pushed new breath into the gasping tinsel industry. Soon lead tinsel was a standard Christmas decoration along with ornaments and electric lights. It actually became so popular in the 1950s and ‘60s that lots of people believe that tinsel was a ‘mid-century fad’ rather than a tradition that had been around as long as the custom of Christmas trees themselves. It was a hit for sure. Lead tinsel was beautiful. You had to put it on the tree one strand at a time. It didn’t tarnish and it would hang straight down, giving the tree that dripping glittering icicle effect. Perfect!

This popular form of tinsel was considered one of the safer forms of decorations to have in every home. In fact, newspaper articles on holiday safety even touted tinsel as being “fairly” safe and that “even if the kiddies decided to swallow it, it will cause no problems or poisoning.” Hold it right there! As we know today, tinsel made from lead wasn’t “fairly safe” at all. Lead is poisonous. In the 1970s, the US government began setting limits on how much lead could be in any product. Even though tinsel manufacturers had switched to using lead foil to keep the tarnish proofing and the sparkle, by Christmas 1972 lead tinsel was off the shelves.

Back to the drawing board! So, if the tinsel we can buy and use today isn’t made of silver, copper, aluminum, or lead, what is it? Today, tinsel is made of polyvinyl chloride…PVC plastic. Machines shred the shiny ribbons of plastic to make those long wispy strands that still add a bit of sparkle and shine to our Christmas trees. Brite Star, a Philadelphia based company, is responsible for about 80% of the tinsel on the market, according to The Wall Street Journal. It began production in the mid-’50s. The company claims to have produced enough tinsel to reach the moon and back! It isn’t as elegant as the kind made from real metals and, because it is so lightweight, it’s less likely to stay put. However, the newest tinsel still brings that vintage “bling” to the holidays without poisoning your family!

After all of that, we still have not answered those questions. How much? What do we call it? One strand at a time or toss on a handful? Take it off and use it next year or toss it out with the tree? Well, I suppose it’s like everything else. It’s up to you, with maybe a little bit of your parents’ voices whispering in your ear. For me it means…old tinsel…there is no such thing as “too much”…we call it tinsel or icicles…one strand at a time…and it all comes off one strand at a time, put back in the box and used again next year. How about you?

The Delicious Origins of the Candy Cane

Candy canes are now as much a part of Christmas as evergreen trees, ornaments, and presents piled under the tree; but no one really knows their entire history. We do know that they originated in Germany about 300 years ago. You might be surprised to know that they were not always red and white with a curved top to look like a cane. They actually started out as a plain old straight, white sugar stick most likely used by parents of the 1600s as a pacifier. They evidently were not too worried with the condition of their offspring’s teeth!

Although created around 1670, it wasn’t until 1844 that a recipe for straight candy sticks was published. About the same time is when they were used to decorate Christmas trees for the first time in America. In 1847, August Imgard, a German-Swedish immigrant in Wooster, Ohio used the white sticks to decorate an evergreen in his home. The rest of his family liked it so much that they continued the tradition. It was common to hang sweets, baked goods, and fruits on the trees, so candy ‘canes’ were the perfect addition. Around 1900, the red stripes were added and the sticks were flavored with peppermint or wintergreen. You can even find evidence of this by looking at antique postcards. Postcards before 1900 do show candy sticks decorating Christmas trees; but, it is not until after 1900 that the striped sticks begin showing up on the cards.

An interesting aside, that affected even the candy cane, was that there was a great debate about additives in candy and in foods in general. The sticks were still straight in the late 1800s and some candy makers added stripes by hand. Some of those bright colors in candy actually contained hazardous substances like the red which included lead oxide and mercury sulfide. This was allowed since there was no regulation of additives in food and candy. In an 1885 cartoon for Puck, the dangers of additives in candy were illustrated by showing the “mutual friendship” between striped candy, doctors, and the undertakers! Well, let’s go straight to the candy store for some! In 1900, the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act began to regulate additives in candy and other foods.

Now, how did these straight sticks get their crook? There are lots of stories about that as well. One story is that a choirmaster in Germany’s Cologne Cathedral convinced a local candy maker to bend sugar sticks into the shape of a shepherd’s crook so that restless children attending Christmas mass could hold on to the treat as they enjoyed it and remain quiet. No one is really sure if this is true or just a convenient legend. Evidence shows that the sticks remained straight for years to come. One thing for sure is these candy sticks were labor-intensive to make. They were hand-made, colored and shaped and were very expensive to purchase. So they were not really for the masses; but, were a treat for those who had the money to spend on luxuries. In the 1920s, cracker businessman Bob McCormack began making candy canes as Christmas treats for his community in Albany, Georgia pulling, twisting, cutting, and bending them by hand. They were so popular that Bob started his own business called ‘Bob’s Candies’. The candy remained a local treat as they were not easily shipped. They were fragile and were prone to take on moisture, becoming sticky. In the 1950s McCormack’s brother-in-law, Gregory Harding Keller, a Catholic priest, invented the ‘Keller Machine’ which turned straight candy sticks into curved candy canes automatically. And the world was made a little sweeter that day!

Okay, we could now mass produce the sweet treats; but, what about packaging and shipping? About the same time as Bob’s brother-in-law invented the Keller Machine, Bob’s son, Bob Jr., created a packing device that wrapped and sealed the candy in moisture proof plastic wrappers. Bob Sr. also came up with a box that held the canes in place for shipping. Now Bob was finally able to ship his candy canes far and wide, eventually making Bob’s Candies the world’s largest candy cane producer! And the rest, as they say, is history!

Bob’s candy canes are still being produced today, although under the Ferrara Candy Company name since 2005. You can still see Bob’s name on the front of the red and green box, however. Now over 2 billion candy canes are made every year! You don’t have to just choose peppermint with red stripes. You can get candy canes in many colors and flavors…cinnamon, butter rum, mac and cheese, pickle, and even clam flavored. No thanks! I think I’ll stick to peppermint!

Today, candy canes continue to decorate our Christmas trees and stuff stockings. They help to stir hot chocolate and are crushed and sprinkled on top of cookies and other desserts. Their images have adorned Christmas cards and wrapping paper. They have turned into decorations and taken their place as one of the most beloved symbols of the Christmas holiday. They are arguably the most popular holiday candy with the longest standing history. Enjoy some this holiday season.

Frosty the Snowman

The Original Look of Frosty the Snowman
The Original Look of Frosty the Snowman

Frosty the Snowman is a lucky guy! Why, you say? Well, Frosty is in the middle of celebrating TWO birthdays! That’s right…TWO! How is that possible? Let us tell you all about it.

We recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first airing of the Rankin/Bass Productions TV cartoon special Frosty the Snowman. It has been shown for 50 consecutive years since December 7, 1969. But, Frosty began his life much earlier. In 1950, two songwriters wanted to produce something that would compete with the popularity of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Walter E. “Jack” Rollins and Steve Nelson came up with the idea of Frosty, but not as a Christmas song. They gave it to Gene Autry, who had been looking for a follow-up to “Rudolph,” to record, and it became an instant hit. Jimmy Durante, Nat King Cole, and Guy Lombardo also had hits with Frosty that placed on the record charts that same year!

Just like Rudolph, Frosty merchandise was produced to help market the song and the character.

The merchandising was taken up by Sears and similar items that had appeared for Rudolph were marketed for Frosty…books, records, pins, a few toys, some clothing, and the ever-popular snow globes. Comic books, coloring books, and puzzles soon followed. However, Sears did not follow through with the merchandising like Robert May and Montgomery Ward did for Rudolph.

Miller Electric was granted the rights to the early Frosty and designed several color variations in hard plastic with a light. Also in the early 1950’s, UPA Studios produced a black and white 3 minute long short of Frosty the Snowman with the original song. It is readily available on YouTube and is televised each Christmas on WGN TV in Chicago.

Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass (Rankin/Bass Productions, Inc.) acquired the rights to “Frosty.” Their animators redesigned Frosty’s appearance, as they had done earlier with Rudolph. They hired Romeo Muller again to write a backstory for Frosty as he had done with Rudolph. Muller had previously been a writer for Jack Envy and Milton Berle. He added the characters to the story of Frosty. He continued to work with Rankin and Bass and did other films including Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1970), The Little Drummer Boy (1968), and Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971).

Rankin and Bass wanted this Christmas special to look like a greeting card. In order to get just the right look, they had greeting card artist, Paul Coker, Jr., who also worked for Mad Magazine, do the background and all of the character initial drawings. Then, those drawings were used to do the animation the old fashioned way, with the creation of cells.

Jimmy Durante was chosen to sing the song and he became the narrator of the story, with his own character. Jackie Vernon, a stand-up comedian, became the voice of Frosty. June Foray was the original voice of Karen during the special’s first few airings; however, her voice was eventually replaced. Foray was also the voice of Cindy Lou Who in How The Grinch Stole Christmas and probably most famous for being the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel. Billy De Wolfe, after many years appearing on various TV programs, his voice will ever be known as Professor Hinkle. Paul Frees, the voice of the traffic cop, the railroad ticket agent, and Santa Claus, worked with many studios doing voices for cartoons and movies alike. He is most notably remembered as Boris Badenov on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.

Frosty the Snowman

TV Guide rated Frosty as number 4 on the most family friendly Christmas Special list. The original version of the song, “Frosty the Snowman,” ended with the line, “I’ll be back again some day.” For the TV version, Jimmy Durante re-recorded the song with the last line of the song being, “I’ll be back on Christmas Day,” making it an “official” Christmas song! That’s what we remember now, Frosty returning at Christmas.

While we celebrated the Rankin/Bass Frosty on his 50th birthday on December 7, 2019, we are now celebrating Frosty’s 70th birthday this year. See, we told you he was a lucky guy and gets to celebrate 2 special birthdays! No matter how old Frosty is, we all look forward to his showing up during the winter and Christmas seasons. Everyone knows that there is always magic in Christmas snow! Right, Frosty?

Gingerbread Men

When you think about gingerbread at Christmas, probably the first thing that comes to mind is the flat, spicy cookie that is made into men whose heads you bite off! Did you ever wonder why “gingerbread men” are shaped like men in the first place? The answer can be traced back hundreds of years.

Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1558-1603, is credited with the invention of the gingerbread man. (I am not kidding!) She loved throwing lavish royal dinners that included things like marzipan shaped like fruit, castles and birds. But, the Queen’s court also included a royal gingerbread maker. (More about these bakers a little later.) Elizabeth delighted in having her gingerbread maker bake gingerbread men made in the likenesses of visiting dignitaries and people from her court. I wonder if these gingerbread men were placed on a serving platter to allow guests to choose any one they wanted. Just imagine the satisfaction of biting off the head of someone you really did not like!

But, the Queen wasn’t the only person eating gingerbread men. Taking their lead from the Queen, gingerbread men were often handed out by folk medicine practitioners (often known as magicians and witches). These gingerbread men were created as “love tokens” for young women. The idea was to get the man you’d like to marry to eat the gingerbread man! Tadah! A trip down the aisle was in your future! Well that was what the magician/witch told you. A contemporary to Elizabeth was none other than William Shakespeare. In Loves Labor’s Lost, he wrote this, “An I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy gingerbread.” I guess William really liked gingerbread.

Royal Gingerbread Baker
Royal Gingerbread Baker

So, how did gingerbread cookies become something to eat around the holidays? Through the ages, gingerbread was sacred and only specific bakers, all men, were given the exclusive rights to baking it. These men all belonged to baking guilds. The only time during the year that gingerbread was allowed to be made by the general public was during Christmas and Easter. So, that’s most likely why it’s seen as a Christmas food. It’s all in the timing! Once an association is established, it’s nearly impossible to change it. Eating gingerbread at Christmas might also be associated with the medicinal properties of the ginger root. It was believed that eating spices heated you up in the winter. Another explanation may be related to overeating during the holidays. Ginger is good at taming upset stomachs. Remember when you were a kid and you were given flat ginger ale when you had an upset tummy?

Queen Victorian and Prince Albert at Christmas
Queen Victorian and Prince Albert at Christmas
Cookie Molds
Cookie Molds

The popularity of gingerbread cookies and houses spread to colonial America. Recipes for the treat varied from region to region, depending upon what immigrants settled there. In 1848, it is said that Queen Victoria and her German-born husband Prince Albert, brought gingerbread cookies into the mainstream when they included them in with other German Christmas traditions they adopted and promoted as family centered traditions, like decorating a Christmas tree and the Yule log. It was during this time that gingerbread cookies became associated primarily with the Christmas holiday.

Tin Gingerbread Man Cookie Cutter
Tin Gingerbread Man Cookie Cutter

The development of tin cookie cutters in the mid-1800s also helped to establish gingerbread cookies in many kitchens and breathed new life into the tradition of gingerbread. The new cookie cutters proclaimed the end of the long-established and complicated cookie board used primarily in bakeries. Soon, these shaped cookies began to appear as ornaments on trees and as gifts for family and friends.

Today, gingerbread cookies are as popular as ever, becoming an established Christmas tradition in America. If reading this blog post has made you hungry for gingerbread men, perhaps you are off to make some for yourself. I have the perfect idea for enjoying them after baking them. Why not sit down with your favorite beverage and The Glow magazine? What a great combination!

Rudolph is 80 Years Old!

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

“‘Twas the day before Christmas, and all through the hills… The reindeer were playing, enjoying the spills.” Sound a little like The Night Before Christmas? Well, that was not an accident! Everyone was already quite familiar with Clement C. Moore’s story and its rhyming tale. So, the author of Rudolph’s story decided to “play” off of that familiarity. He was an ad-man, after all!

Robert May

It was at the end of the decade-long Great Depression and 11 months away from the next Christmas holiday; but, Montgomery Ward department store was thinking ahead. They had been buying and giving coloring books away to children for years at Christmas as a promotional gimmick. Montgomery Ward decided it could most likely save money by developing its own giveaway book. They asked 34-year old copywriter, Robert L. May, to create just such a story. You see, he was known as someone who could make up a limerick on the spot; so, his bosses thought he was the perfect choice.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Original Manuscript cover

May’s job was personally a difficult one, not only because of the economic factors and the fact that Christmas was so far away; but, because his wife was struggling with cancer and the family’s bills were mounting. May really wanted to write the “great American novel”…not write ad copy for kids. He did, however, take on the project of writing an animal story related to Christmas. May wanted to make the main character an underdog, since he thought kids really loved and cheered for underdogs. Santa was not a problem. Everyone loved Santa! He thought a reindeer might be an idea since his daughter loved the reindeer at the zoo. When he presented his idea to his boss, his boss replied, “For gosh sakes, Bob, can’t you do better than that?” Well, he certainly did! He asked Denver Gillen, who worked in the art department, if he “could draw a reindeer with a big red glowing nose and make him look appealing.” He thought that might convince the boss. It worked!

It took May months to develop the story that he liked. He tried out several different names until he decided on Rudolph. In July of 1939, May’s wife died. His boss offered to hand off the project to someone else; but, May said, in later years, that HE needed Rudolph more than ever right then. May completed the story by August along with Gillen’s illustrations. Bob first read the story to his daughter and his wife’s parents. He could see in their expressions that the story had accomplished what he had hoped.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1939 Montgomery Ward Giveaway Booklet cover

Montgomery Ward had high hopes for the 32-page illustrated booklet, which would be given as a free gift to any child visiting one of their 620 department stores throughout the country. They planned on an ad campaign in newspapers and circulars. It was thought that it would bring every one of its stores remarkable publicity and an unrealized amount of store traffic during the Christmas season. It did just that, and 2.4 million copies ended up in the hands of children everywhere.

Montgomery Ward’s Rudolph giveaway was a big hit during the 1939 Christmas season all across the country. The department store planned on printing another huge run of the booklet for the following Christmas; but, because of the paper shortage due to WWII, Rudolph was shelved until the war’s end. When Rudolph returned in 1946, he was more popular than ever and Montgomery Ward gave out 3.6 million copies of the book during the 1946 Christmas season.

During the time from 1940-1946, Robert May married again and became a father for the second time. During 1947, the Montgomery Ward Board of Directors, possibly because they didn’t see a long range future outside of Christmas for the red-nosed reindeer, signed the copyright for Rudolph over to May. Later, they probably wished they hadn’t done that! May quickly licensed a commercial version of the book along with a full range of Rudolph themed merchandise. Smart man!

Johnny Marks, song writer

In 1949, Robert May asked his brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, a prolific song writer, to put Rudolph’s story to song. Bing Crosby was first asked to sing the new song; but, declined.

Gene Autry

Instead, rising star and singing cowboy, Gene Autry recorded the song, which sold over 2 million copies in the first year. It remains, to this day, one of the best-selling songs of all time. In later years, Johnny Marks once said that he thought his Rudolph song might have been the worst song he ever wrote! Marks wrote other famous Christmas songs as well… “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Silver and Gold,” and “Run Rudolph Run.”

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in Christmas Stocking

In 1948, May produced a short film of Rudolph. In 1964, Rankin and Bass produced the ‘stop-motion’ animation, using puppets, that all of us have enjoyed for years. It was aired on NBC on December 6, 1964 and has become the world’s longest running and highest-rated television special of all time!

Through all of this and down through 80 years, the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has become a piece of modern folklore and an example of overcoming obstacles, embracing differences and recognizing potential in others and yourself. And as for Rudolph himself, well, you know… “He went down in his-to-ry!”